Most people would think that if their freeway was clogged up every rush hour, adding an extra lane would reduce the congestion. They would be wrong.
And an uprising against Oregon state government plans to widen the I-5 freeway here in Portland may end up changing how cities around the country decide to use the hundreds of billions of dollars in highway funds coming to them from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
A recent study of 100 US cities found that — between 1993 and 2017 — billions were spent to expand highway systems’ capacities by 42 percent, far faster than the cities were growing population-wise. But instead of reducing congestion, traffic delays actually went up by 144 percent.
The key to understanding this phenomenon is something called “induced demand.” Basically, it is the idea that when you offer a population something nice, lots of people show up to use it.
Aaron Brown of NoMoreFreewaysPDX.com described induced demand to me on my program as being like when Ben & Jerry’s offers free ice cream and suddenly a quiet storefront area has a line around the block. When freeways are expanded, more people decide to use them, producing even more congestion.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, along with the NRDC and four other environmental groups has even put online an extraordinarily detailed induced demand calculator with databases for cities all around the country.
Thirty percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles and, for the city of Portland (like many cities), it is 40 percent.
Widening our highways will only draw more cars onto the road and increase our greenhouse gas output, which has become the basis of a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) by NoMoreFreeways and aligned groups.
Young Portland activists have organized a Youth versus ODOT Instagram site, aligned with the Portland Sunrise movement, and now there are weekly protests at ODOT offices by local high school students and others.
And they are having an impact. As Bloomberg News noted:
“On January 18, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded a key approval of the controversial highway widening that’s been a prime target of the young protesters, the Rose Quarter Improvement Project along Portland’s Interstate 5. FWHA also requested that the state redo its environmental study.”
Environmental groups and activists concerned with the future livability of their cities are taking notice, and Colorado is also leading the way in now requiring that environmental issues be considered in all transportation infrastructure decisions.
Meanwhile, there is a huge trend of cities around the world taking steps to reduce their own car burden: from London to Bogota to Beijing, driving lanes are being replaced by bike lanes, parts of city centers are going pedestrian-only, and tolls or fees are being charged for entry into or driving within the city.
Here in America, decisions are being made this spring about how to spend the hundreds of billions coming to states in the new highway legislation and the auto, tire, and fossil fuel industries are large and well financed.
Since the Supreme Court legalized political bribery with Citizens United in 2010, those industries will be able to pour unlimited amounts of cash down the throats of state-level politicians all across the nation.
And now that hedge funds and billionaire investors have bought up or killed off so many of America’s local newspapers, that legal bribery (“lobbying” and “contributions”) probably would not even be reported on in local media.
Meanwhile, the industry of companies that manufacture mass transit vehicles like buses, streetcars and subway systems is relatively small, specialized, and does not have an army of lobbyists or hundreds of millions for now-legalized political bribes.
It is going to be a hell of a fight, and our local voices could be the factor that decides whether our polluting highways are expanded or, instead, that money goes to bike lanes, public spaces and mass transit. Now is the time to get active in your community.